Big Ben stands tall against the gray London sky. Pigeons peck their way through stale breadcrumbs at the base of Lord Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square. Beefeaters--the red-coated protectors of the queen--escort crowds through the Tower of London into centuries past, when tyrannical monarchs severed heads and placed them on sticks to line the wooden bridges over the River Thames. Streets blur with red and black--the red of double-decker buses and the black of box-like taxis. This is the London everyone knows. But there is another London, where the neighborhood green grocer and ironmonger putter about their shop windows in the early morning dawn while the butcher hangs chickens with their heads down and eyes glassy. In the heat of summer, glass pint bottles full of milk stand on front steps waiting to be brought inside, and men of age with no visible signs of fitness sunbathe in the verdant parks with their white dress shirts folded neatly at their sides. In the dark of winter, office workers scurry through the misty, seductive rain.
RESTAURANTS: The ubiquitous "Pret a Manger" sandwich, pastry and coffee shops are the mainstay of budget Londoners. The bread is always fresh, and the combinations of food are creative, including salmon and chive sandwiches and small, boxed desserts. The best pastries in town are at DeBaer's, a Belgian patisserie on tiny William Street just off the busy Knightsbridge shopping street, where the almond croissants are tastier than in Brussels or Paris. No one should visit London without taking part at least once in the afternoon tea ritual, practiced by tourists and natives alike. Harrod's is great, but for a more authentic (and upscale) high tea, dress up and venture into the Lanesborough Hotel's palm-lined conservatory, regarded by many as the top tea spot in town.
NIGHTLIFE: London's eclectic West End offerings are unrivaled. A play that entrances its audience for 90 minutes without a break is "Art," a three-man tour-de-force focused on a modern painting that is, well, only white. When evening shows let out, crowds line the streets of the theater district, many headed for the restaurants in the area. The quintessential after-theatre hotspot is the Ivy, where a star or two often add to the buzz in the air. The classic London dance club is the enormous Ministry of Sound, near the Elephant & Castle underground station south of the River Thames. Less well known is Turnhills, in the Holborn area, where regular drum and bass nights create a different beat. Superstars, not mortals, hit super-fashionable Annabelle's. London Walks, an old-line organizer of informative strolls through the city led by actor types, has expanded beyond its daytime itineraries to run night sojourns along venerable pub routes, leaving its customers to stumble home several hours and drinks later. For the brave, London Walks stages nighttime treks through the East End haunts of Jack the Ripper, the mysterious Victorian who neatly slitted the throats of ladies of the night but eluded capture.
NON-TOURISTY SITE: For serenity and beauty away from the crowds, take a packet of London's many newspapers to Mount Street Gardens and enjoy a respite on one of the wooden benches. The gardens are off the tourist trail in the tony Mayfair section, nestled behind Mount Street, South Audley and Farm Street.
SHOPPING: Upmarket Men's tailors line Savile Row; the most fashionable stores have a branch on nearby Bond Street. More reasonably priced, countryside togs can be found at Hardy Brothers on Pall Mall.
SPORT: Rent a boat to glide along the Serpentine in Hyde Park if the weather permits.
PEOPLE WATCHING: While Hyde Park is the place for sports, Trafalgar Square, down the boulevard known as the Mall from Buckingham Palace and opposite the National Gallery, is where crowds gather annually to ring in the New Year.
WILD CARD: Finally, a familiar face from home. On the south side of the River Thames, the Harvard Chapel in Southwark Cathedral hosts London's memorial to John Harvard.